‘Our weddings are normally at church and are legally binding.’1
As a matter of law, Christian weddings – excepting Anglican and Quaker weddings, discussed in Chapter 2 – stand on exactly the same footing as those of other faiths. In essence, any religious group is able to register its place of worship for weddings, subject to certain conditions being fulfilled.2 Once that is done, weddings may be celebrated there in whatever ceremony the couple may choose, as long as each party makes a declaration that they are free to marry, and consents to marry, according to one of the forms set out in the Act.3 These ‘prescribed words’ must be spoken in the presence of two witnesses and either a civil registrar or an authorized person appointed by the governing body of the registered place of worship.4
Yet our Christian participants tended to have a very different view of weddings in registered places of worship from that expressed by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. The opening quote in this chapter illustrates how Christian participants saw the law as enabling them to marry in accordance with their beliefs. The reason for this is simple: as we describe in the next section, since the legal requirements were designed for Christian weddings, it is easier for Christian weddings to comply with those requirements and
There are, it should be noted, varying views within Christianity as to how a marriage should be formed.6 To take only the most basic of distinctions, the Catholic Church regards marriage as a sacrament, has a set liturgy for the ceremony, and requires the ceremony to be conducted in the presence of a priest in order to be religiously valid; Protestant churches, by contrast, do not regard marriage as a sacrament, may or may not have a formal liturgy,7 and hold differing views on whether the presence of a minister is required.
However, as we shall show, the law was designed for the diverse forms that a Christian wedding might take. In this chapter, we focus on why the option of getting married in a registered place of worship works better for Christian groups than it does for those of other faiths. We begin by looking at why this option was introduced and why it was framed in such a way as to allow couples to marry ‘according to such form and ceremony’ as they saw ‘fit to adopt’8 rather than in accordance with specific religious rites, but how it was nonetheless designed with Christian weddings in mind. We then go on to show how different types of Christian weddings operated within that legal framework and how the option of getting married in a registered place of worship worked better for some Christian groups than for others. In the final section, we turn to the data from the Nuffield Foundation-funded project to show how getting married in a Christian registered place of worship is understood today.
A scheme designed for Christian weddings
As explained in Chapter 2, before the Marriage Act 1836, the law only formally made provision for Anglican weddings. This lack of provision was unsurprising. The Quakers apart, Protestant Dissenters had not developed
The virtual monopoly of the Church of England began to be challenged in the early decades of the 19th century, and the Marriage Act 1836 provided both Protestant Dissenters and Catholics with an alternative to being married in the Church of England by allowing certified places of worship to be registered for weddings. There was, however, an important difference between providing an alternative and formally recognizing the wedding ceremonies of Protestant Dissenters and Catholics per se. The Act conferred no authority on Dissenting ministers or Catholic priests to conduct weddings: every wedding in a registered place of worship had to be attended by a civil registrar. Nor did it require such weddings to be conducted according to religious rites. Instead, weddings were to be celebrated ‘according to such form and ceremony’ as the couple ‘may see fit to adopt’, subject to the inclusion of prescribed declarations and vows.10
This approach reflected the way in which the campaign for reform had been framed.11 The diversity of Dissent meant that those calling for reform had very different ideas about how they wanted to marry and the alternative model of regulating a specific group or groups would never have worked for them.12 Not only was there a plethora of different groups, but many individual churches were fiercely independent, existing outside any denominational organization. All that united them was a desire for an alternative to getting married in the Church of England.13
From the start, then, the 1836 framework was designed to ensure that no one was required to marry in a way that was incompatible with their conscience. Its neutral framing was more radical than simply adding to the list of groups whose marriages would be recognized, as had occurred in other parts of the United Kingdom when similar challenges arose.14 It was,
The fact that the words were the same as those prescribed for weddings in register offices has led some to categorize weddings in registered places of worship as ‘civil’ ones.17 It is therefore of some significance that the legislation did not stipulate that those getting married in a registered place of worship should marry in the same form as in a register office; rather, the prescribed words are set out in the section dealing with weddings in registered places of worship, and the section introducing the possibility of marrying in the register office merely notes that the parties are to marry ‘making the Declaration and using the Form of Words herein-before provided in the Case of Marriage in any such registered Building’.18 In other words, the civil wedding in a register office could also be described as a Christian-based ceremony. This point had not escaped the notice of David: “It always struck me as slightly ironic that even the sort of standard civil ceremony is very much aping the Book of Common Prayer, you know, in its wording. You know, one feels it and it’s sort of there and present in the room.”
How the scheme worked for different Christian weddings
The fact that the 1836 Act was devised with Christian weddings in mind did not mean it worked equally for different Christian groups. Three key factors determined whether groups were able to avail themselves of the option of registering their place of worship for weddings and how that option was experienced.
The first was whether any given group had a sufficient critical mass in a given area to be able to afford its own building and sufficient support
The second factor was whether any given denomination had specific requirements for a religiously recognized ceremony with which the prescribed words might conflict. To the extent that Protestant Dissenters were starting with a blank slate in 1837, their new wedding services could be constructed around the prescribed words rather than these having to be inserted into an existing liturgy. Where groups had already devised their own wedding services, these tended to be just as closely based on the Book of Common Prayer as the prescribed words were. Either way, incorporating the prescribed words was a simple enough matter.24
For Catholics, the position was rather different. They were not starting with a blank slate, since they had their own long-established liturgies that predated the Book of Common Prayer. Of course, these liturgies had shaped the structure and form of the marriage service of the Church of England,25 which had in turn shaped the prescribed words, so they would still have had a certain familiarity for Catholics. However, if both the Catholic liturgy
Catholics therefore perceived a clear difference between that part of the ceremony that was conducted according to their own religious rites and ‘the civil portion of the ceremony’ performed before the registrar.26 The separation was not merely conceptual but also physical: as one 19th-century legal commentator explained, the practice of the parties was to ‘leave the body of the church’ after the Catholic rite had been performed and repeat the prescribed words to the registrar in the sacristy or vestry.27 But the result was that Catholics had first to declare that they were free to marry and that they took each other as husband and wife before a priest, and then do the same before the registrar.
The fact that the two parts of the ceremony were so similar was seen as undermining both. For some, such repetition made the civil part of the ceremony ‘ludicrous’;28 for others, it was ‘offensive’ in ‘implying insufficiency in the Sacramental form’.29 As one Catholic priest noted of the declaration to the registrar, either the parties were making a solemn declaration that they knew of no reason ‘why they may not contract a marriage which they have already contracted’30 or they were acknowledging that the Catholic rite was of no effect in the eyes of the law. Moreover, the fact the words that had to be repeated before the registrar were exactly the same as those that had to be exchanged in a register office led the priest to conclude ‘that the law altogether ignores the Catholic marriage and supersedes it by one of its own’.31
That brings us on to the third factor that influenced how the option of getting married in a registered place of worship operated: whether a religious group accorded a specific role to a priest or minister with which the presence of a registrar might compete. Some Dissenting groups had no ordained ministry and were content to say the prescribed words before the registrar, and it was perfectly valid for the registrar to marry the couple ‘without any
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, there was a campaign to dispense with the presence of the registrar in registered places of worship.36 This resulted in the passage of the Marriage Act 1898, which established the procedure for ‘authorised persons’ to be appointed.37 While an authorized person did not have to be a minister or priest, being in essence a substitute for the civil registrar, this new option proved most popular among those religious groups that wanted their ministers to have the same status as Church of England clergy.38
With a few minor changes, this framework remains in place today. The Marriage Act 1949 largely consolidated the terms of the 1836 Act, with no real change so far as weddings in Christian registered places of worship were concerned. Various minor amendments were subsequently made to the conditions determining which places of worship could be registered39 and who could marry in any given registered place of worship.40 Provision was made for alternative versions of the prescribed words,41 but not to
Perceptions of Christian weddings in registered places of worship today
It was clear from the participants in the Nuffield Foundation-funded study that the three factors discussed earlier – whether the group has a building that can be registered for weddings, the role of the authorized person, and the requirements of the ceremony – still exert an influence on how the option of getting married in a registered place of worship works for different Christian groups. However, the vast majority of Christian places of worship are now registered for weddings, many have appointed an authorized person, and the prescribed words have been absorbed into their marriage services to the extent that they are no longer visible. In this section, we put the experiences of our participants into the context of these broader religious and legal structures to show the factors that shape the experience of getting married in a Christian place of worship today, and why our participants regarded the law as recognizing their religious ceremonies.
The number of registered places of worship
The necessity for a religious group to have a place of worship that can be registered for weddings remains a significant limitation for many Christian groups. Tom, for example, reported that his Evangelical Christian fellowship did not have its own building and so met in a local school. Dan also gave the example of a local Catholic congregation that met in a school and whose members accordingly “couldn’t have a wedding where they have their Sunday service, because it wasn’t an authorized building”.
For Sam, the issue was not a lack of buildings but the limitations in terms of which buildings could be registered for weddings. He was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose temples could not be registered for weddings because they were only open to members, precluding the possibility of fulfilling the condition of being places of public religious worship.43 As a result, Sam’s legal wedding had taken place in one of their
That said, the majority of Christian places of worship are registered for weddings. With over 22,000 places of worship registered by Christian denominations across England and Wales, there is no registration district without a place of worship registered by at least one Christian denomination.44
That in turn affects the options available to those groups that do not have their own building. The legal framework facilitates interdenominational cooperation: a place of worship may be registered by a particular group, but it is not registered for weddings conducted according to the rites of that group. It is open to the minister or trustees of each individual building to decide who may marry there and what form the wedding can take.45 If the group wishes to host weddings for another denomination, it may do so. Tom’s Evangelical Christian fellowship had benefited from such cooperation: as he explained, “we have relationships with other fellowships who very kindly have churches that will allow us to conduct services there”.
While there is nothing in the legal framework to limit such cooperation to Christian groups, in reality this is only viable where there is sufficient common ground between the host building and the couple seeking to marry there. While the high number of places of worship registered by Christian groups does not guarantee cooperation, it increases the likelihood of a couple being able to find a place of worship in which they can marry.
The supportive role of the authorized person
Only one of our non-Anglican Christian interviewees, Dan, mentioned a civil registrar being present at his wedding. The other three had all married in the presence of an authorized person. Those conducting weddings were similarly either authorized persons or had experience of working alongside an authorized person. As Simon explained, “I am the minister and I am doing the legal part of it as well”.
The presence of an authorized person, rather than a civil registrar, was significant for a number of reasons. First, there was no state employee present to remind the couple that it was compliance with the legal requirements that created a marriage. Second, authorized persons tended to be appointed
The option of appointing an authorized person is not limited to Christian places of worship. Nor is it an option that depends on a particular theological view about the role of a minister or priest, given the lack of consensus among those conducting weddings as to whether a minister or priest should themselves be authorized. Of the two Roman Catholic priests we spoke to, Dan appeared to have taken it for granted that he would be authorized, but John explained that he was not because the priest he had worked with preferred to keep the “roles of church and state” separate. Similarly, while Simon performed a dual role, he was quick to point out that there was no theological reason for him to do so, and that there were plenty of free churches in which it was not the minister who was authorized; as he added, “we certainly don’t view that it has to be the priest or the minister who would need to be that person”.
There did, however, appear to be a high level of awareness of the option of being authorized and of the necessary processes. Dan noted that when he was appointed as a Roman Catholic parish priest, he had “then registered as an authorized person with the … registry office”. Simon also seemed to have found the process straightforward, describing it as just a matter of completing the paperwork.
The invisibility of the prescribed words
As our discussion of Catholic weddings illustrated, how the prescribed words are experienced depends very much on how they are incorporated within the religious ceremony. There is a significant difference between weddings in which the prescribed words are identified as such and isolated from the rest of the ceremony and those in which the prescribed words are woven into the religious liturgy so that the join between the two is invisible.
When the Marriage Ceremony (Prescribed Words) Bill was being debated in Parliament, it was noted that the text of the new words had already been ‘agreed by the Roman Catholic and Free Churches as being appropriate to the forms of their liturgies’.48 In the modern liturgy of the Methodist Church, for example, the declarations are pared down to the question ‘Are you, AB, free lawfully to marry CD?’ and the answer ‘I am’, and so barely impinge on the ceremony. These declarations are separated from the words of consent by a combination of scripture readings, a sermon, and a hymn. The words of consent appear under the heading ‘The vows’; the words that are prescribed by law are in bold type but otherwise appear as one with the rest of the ‘solemn vow’ made by each of the couple.49
The successful integration of the prescribed words was reflected in David’s comment that the form of his ceremony was determined by the Catholic Church.51 While he was aware of the fact that there were words prescribed by law, these words had not obtruded on the ceremony. The virtual invisibility of the prescribed words was also illustrated in Simon’s reaction to the Law Commission’s proposal that prescribed words would no longer be required in a religious ceremony. His concern was that he would no longer be able to require that the Baptist ceremony be used; for him, the prescribed words were those prescribed by his church, not by the state.
The experience of our participants suggests that descriptions of a wedding in a registered place of worship as ‘civil’ is ambiguous in meaning. While both Sam and David at times referred to the wedding in a place of worship as “civil”, in context it appears that they simply meant that the religious ceremony had civil, or legal, effects. David, for example, noted that the Catholic ceremony “was also the civil ceremony”, while Sam described his wedding as “a typical religious wedding”.
Both Mary and David saw the wedding in a registered place of worship as a single ceremony that was recognized by the law, rather than as a religious ceremony with a separate ‘civil’ part. As Mary noted, “the legally binding ceremony is in the church”. The fact that both ceremonies were Catholic was probably a coincidence; of more significance was the fact that an authorized
Since the focus of our study was on couples who had had a non-legally binding ceremony, it cannot be taken as representative of the 10,000 or so couples who marry in a Christian registered place of worship each year.52 But that background means that our sample is likely to over-represent those who had experience of different types of ceremony and so might be expected to be more attuned to what is required as a matter of religion and what is required as a matter of law. Sarah was aware of the prescribed words because they had constituted virtually the entirety of the pared-down wedding she had due to COVID-19 restrictions, but her general perception was that “as a Christian, I can have the type of service I want, ideally also legally recognized”.
Our aim in this chapter has been to add some nuance to the debate about the way in which the marriage law engages with different religions and belief systems. It is important to appreciate the difference between making provision for weddings in a way that favours those conducted according to Christian rites and formally recognizing all Christian weddings. At different times, couples in many Christian groups have not been able to avail themselves of the option of getting married in a registered place of worship, and many Christians have experienced the prescribed words as a separate ‘civil’ ceremony. But it is equally important to appreciate the historical, legal, and structural factors that make it easier for legally recognized weddings to take place in places of worship registered by Christian groups and for Christian couples to believe that the law recognizes their religious ceremonies.
Those getting married in a registered place of worship are, however, a shrinking number. At the start of the 20th century, weddings in registered places of worship accounted for 17 per cent of all weddings, and while this fluctuated over the decades, the increase in the Catholic population brought the figure to 20 per cent in 1968.53 By the close of the century, however, this had almost halved, and in 2019 just 4 per cent of weddings took place in places of worship registered by Christian groups.
Under the Law Commission’s recommendations, little will change for those Christian churches that already conduct weddings. They will be able to nominate officiants under the new scheme56 and may, if they wish, require weddings to be celebrated in their place of worship, according to their own prescribed liturgy.57 But they will also have the option of conducting weddings in a wider range of locations and will be able to choose to change their liturgy without needing to ensure that particular words are included.58 That should make it easier – and possibly more attractive – for more Christian couples to have a wedding that reflects their beliefs. While Amanda favoured retaining prescribed words on the basis that “it would still be good to have certain wording that is the same, that just makes that legal part of it”, she had perhaps not realized that these words are not prescribed for all under the current law.59
Moreover, in thinking about the extent to which the law currently respects beliefs in marriage, it is essential to understand that the apparent
Simon, Baptist minister.
In order to be registered, a place of worship must (1) be certified as a place of worship under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855; (2) consist of a building (or part of a building); and (3) have the support of 20 householders who use the building as their usual place of public religious worship: Marriage Act 1949, s 41.
Marriage Act 1949, s 44.
Marriage Act 1949, ss 43 and 43B.
That experience is likely to be replicated across much of Europe: the rules governing entry into marriage were originally governed by the canon law of either the Catholic or Orthodox church: see Maria V. Antokolskaia (2003) ‘Development of family law in Western and Eastern Europe: common origins, common driving forces, common tendencies’ 28 Journal of Family History 52.
On which see Norman Doe (2013) Christian Law (Cambridge University Press), 254–60. There are also differences in terms of willingness to conduct same-sex weddings or weddings involving a partner who has been divorced.
The Unitarian Church, for example, explains: ‘we don’t have a standard marriage ceremony. Instead, our talented ministers work with you to determine exactly what your wedding sounds, looks and feels like. We can provide a more traditional service if you like, but we’re equally happy providing a more innovative service’: The Unitarians, ‘Weddings’: www.unitarian.org.uk/your-special-event/weddings/
Marriage Act 1836, s 20.
Freedom of worship was only secured by the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791. On Catholic marriages before and after the 1753 Act, see Rebecca Probert (2009) Marriage Law and Practice in the Long Eighteenth Century: A Reassessment (Cambridge University Press), chs 4 and 9.
Marriage Act 1836, s 20.
On which see Rebecca Probert (2021) Tying the Knot: The Formation of Marriage, 1836–2020 (Cambridge University Press), ch 2.
For discussion of the range of views within Dissent, see further Rebecca Probert (2022) ‘Secular or sacred? The ambiguity of “civil” marriage in the Marriage Act 1836’ 43 Journal of Legal History 136.
Rebecca Probert, Maebh Harding, and Brian Dempsey (2018) ‘A uniform law of marriage? The 1868 Royal Commission reconsidered’ 30 Child and Family Law Quarterly 217.
Toleration Act 1688; Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791; Places of Religious Worship Act 1812. For discussion of the significance attached to location, see Wendy Kennett (2015) ‘The place of worship in solemnization of a marriage’ 30 Journal of Law and Religion 260.
For analysis of the similarities and differences between the Book of Common Prayer and the prescribed words, see Probert (2022).
See, for example, Thomas Glyn Watkin (1990) ‘Vestiges of establishment: the ecclesiastical and canon law of the Church in Wales’ 2 Ecclesiastical Law Journal 110, 111.
Marriage Act 1836, s 21.
See further Probert (2021), ch 3.
See A Return of the Number of Registered Dissenting Meeting-houses and Roman Catholic Chapels in England and Wales (1836) 14 July, House of Commons Papers, Vol 40, 267–310 which demonstrated that many Dissenters met for worship in rooms within buildings that would not qualify to be registered.
Births and Deaths Registration Act 1837, s 35. See Probert (2021), 60.
For discussion of local variations in registration, see Michael Watts (1995) The Dissenters (Oxford University Press), 664.
See further Rebecca Probert (2021) ‘Interpreting choices: what can we infer from where our ancestors married?’ 5 Journal of Genealogy and Family History 75.
For examples of post-1836 marriage liturgies, see Probert (2022).
On the evolution of liturgy, see Kenneth W. Stevenson (1987) To Join Together: The Rite of Marriage (Pueblo Publishing Company); Mark Searle and Kenneth W. Stevenson (1992) Documents of the Marriage Liturgy (The Liturgical Press).
‘Marriage’, The Tablet (1887) 17 September, 460.
James T. Hammick (1887) The Marriage Law of England: A Practical Treatise on the Legal Incidents Connected with the Law of Constitution of the Matrimonial Contract (Shaw & Sons), 147–8.
See the submission of Archbishop Manning and the Roman Catholic Bishops of England: Report of the Royal Commission on the Laws of Marriage 1868  App 1, 44.
‘Marriages of Nonconformists Bill’, The Tablet (1891) 14 March, 422. See also ‘The Registrar at Catholic Marriages’, The Tablet (1888) 21 April, 650 (‘an indignity to Catholics’) and ‘Can We Accept Them’, The Tablet (1891) 21 March, 455 (‘superfluous insult’).
‘Baby Farming and the Law of Marriage’, The Tablet (1879) 25 October, 535.
The Tablet (1879).
Liverpool Mercury (1886) 1 September, 5.
‘The Marriage Laws and Catholics’, The Tablet (1879) 8 November, 589.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph (1899), ‘A Doubtful Privilege’, 10 April, 3.
Hansard, HC Deb, 24 February 1891, Vol 350, col 1542 (Mr Atkinson).
See further Probert (2021), ch 5.
See further Rebecca Probert, Rajnaara C. Akhtar, Sharon Blake, Vishal Vora, and Tania Barton (2021) ‘The importance of being authorized: the genesis, limitations and legacy of the Marriage Act, 1898’ 10 Oxford Journal of Law and Religion 394.
Probert (2021), ch 6.
See the Marriage Acts Amendment Act 1958, which removed the condition that a place of worship had to have been used as such for a year before it could be registered, and substituted a requirement that a civil registrar should attend weddings in its first year of operation; the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969; and the Marriage (Registration of Buildings) Act 1990, which removed the condition that a place of worship had to be a ‘separate’ building.
See the Marriage Act 1949 (Amendment) Act 1954, which amended the conditions governing when a couple could marry in a registered place of worship in a different registration district.
Marriage Ceremony (Prescribed Words) Act 1996 (on which see the section ‘The invisibility of the prescribed words’).
A minor difference is that they are now responsible for ensuring that the marriage schedule is returned to be registered, rather than for entering the marriage into a register book: The Registration of Marriages Regulations 2021, SI 2021 No 411.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v Henning (Valuation Officer)  AC 420, upheld in Gallagher (Valuation Officer) v Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints  UKHL 56. For discussion of this restriction, see Anthony Bradney (1993) Religions, Rights and Laws (Leicester University Press), 41.
UK Government (2015) ‘Places of worship registered for marriage’ (15 March): www.gov.uk/government/publications/places-of-worship-registered-for-marriage
Marriage Act 1949, s 44(1).
Except in the case of different-belief marriages, for example that of David: see further Chapter 5.
Such cooperation has a long history: see Rebecca Probert and Liz Harris (2021) ‘Crossing the denominational divide: authorised persons and the registration of weddings in Desborough’s Nonconformist chapels’ 5 Journal of Genealogy and Family History 101.
Hansard, HL Deb, 2 July 1996, Vol 573, col 1428 (Lord Bishop of Southwark).
The Methodist Church Liturgy for the Marriage of Any Two Persons: www.methodist.org.uk/media/23099/marriage-of-two-persons-liturgy-approved-by-the-2021-conference.pdf
‘Order of Celebrating Matrimony’: www.liturgyoffice.org.uk/Resources/Marriage/OCM-Marriage-Texts.pdf
It should be noted that David was somewhat critical of the priest who had conducted his wedding, as the latter made few concessions to the fact that David was not Catholic: see further Chapter 5.
Office for National Statistics (2022) ‘Marriages in England and Wales: 2019’, Table 1. The figure cannot be stated exactly as Quaker marriages are included in the category of ‘other Christian’ marriages.
See Office for National Statistics (2022).
See Clive Field (2019) Periodizing Secularization: Religious Allegiance and Attendance in Britain, 1880–1945 (Oxford University Press).
Law Commission (2022) Celebrating Marriage: A New Weddings Law (19 July), paras 4.256 (on the criteria that religious groups will need to fulfil in order to be able to nominate officiants) and 4.258 (on the transitional provisions that will apply to existing registered places of worship).
Law Commission (2022), para 5.118.
Law Commission (2022), para 5.78.